Hollywood is a dead town, at least on this morbid tour

May 11, 2015

Kourtney Robb of San Clemente, Calif., plants a kiss on the headstone of Marilyn Monroe at Pierce Brothers Cemetery in Los Angeles, a stop on the Dearly Departed Hollywood bus tour. 

LOS ANGELES — Exploiting the dead is distasteful. I think we all can agree on that. Let the departed, dearly and otherwise, rest in peace. For when we die — sorry to plunge you into existential despair so early in the day, but it will happen — our dignity and right to be treated with a modicum of human decency should not expire with us.

And yet …

In spite of my better self, I was drawn to a twisted, shameless and undeniably fascinating Hollywood tour called "Dearly Departed: The Tragical History Tour," which for $50 will expose the seamy underbelly (no doubt liposucked, to leave a better-looking corpse) of the glitzy TV and film industry and those often-flawed personages that populate it.

Gawd, I’m such a bad person. Something, probably buried deep in my childhood subconscious, makes me find allure in the lurid. Forgive me, please.

Or, better yet, go on the tour yourself and see if I’m wrong. Discover whether the three-hour excursion into the dark side of Tinseltown truly is as tasteless as a Twinkie, and with about as much nutritional value as edifying brain food, as well.

I didn’t walk, so much as slink, into the Sunset Boulevard offices of Dearly Departed one recent Saturday for its afternoon thanatic outing. (There are, please note, more specific packages, such as the Helter Skelter Tour of Manson Family sites and the "Carpen-Tour," tracing the bright career and sad demise of seminal ‘70s songstress Karen Carpenter, but those are for hardened veterans; the general "Tragical" tour is sort of the gateway drug.)

Like a naughty schoolboy ducking into a peep show, I tightened the draw strings on my hoodie. When I opened the door, I was greeted with wall-to-wall Death of the Stars mementos, from Lana Turner’s favorite gold-plated cigarette lighter (she died of throat cancer) to Marilyn Monroe’s last (unpaid) telephone bill to Rock Hudson’s bedpost and Rolodex to a chunk of the tile floor from the bungalow where Rudolph Valentino died.

I also was greeted by the toothy grin and alarmingly strong handshake of Scott Michaels, Dearly Departed’s owner, who quickly provided me with absolution for my prurient interests — or, you might say, merely delivered cogent, if sophistic, dissembling disguised as incisive social commentary (you decide).

"Ten years ago, when we started this company, everyone was giving us the stink eye whenever we passed anyone’s death house," Michaels said. "Now there’s not a single company that doesn’t pass Michael Jackson’s death house. Things have changed. I mean, look at the tabloids, you know.

"This is 100 years’ worth of deaths. A lot of names of the dead on our tour aren’t thrown around anymore. But their deaths are so interesting that perhaps somebody, after taking the tour, might be inspired to rent one of their movies. It may not be the way (the stars) wanted to be remembered, but then again, attention is attention in this town. They are public figures. Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean it stops."

Michaels does have a point. When is the last time you’ve thought about William Frawley (the droll Fred Mertz on "I Love Lucy") or Brian Keith (beloved "Family Affair" patriarch) or Marie Prevost (silent screen diva turned pop-song subject)? They all are featured on the tour, though details of these stars’ demise didn’t exactly send the hearts of the 11 women (no men, sans yours truly) on the bus fluttering like when guide Brian Donnelly got to the Whitney Houston-Marilyn Monroe-Michael Jackson tragic triad.

"We love this (tour), and this is our fourth time," said Kourtney Robb, part of a gaggle of gawkers up from San Clemente, Calif. "It’s a guilty pleasure."

Kind of like chocolate except with more bite.

Once you delude yourself into thinking, "Privacy be damned; these are celebrities and nothing’s off-limits by our click-bait, sleazy social-media standards," you can sit back in the van’s plush seats and spend three hours being driven around the streets of Hollywood, Westwood, Beverly Hills, Century City and West L.A. with the manic running commentary of Donnelly, whose data base-sized knowledge of the sites and circumstances behind stars’ deaths makes him a walking, talking celebrity pseudo-coroner — or maybe just an amateur obit writer. (Big props to Donnelly, by the way, for not once succumbing to euphemism: Stars died; they did not "pass away," or "cross over" or "find eternal rest." OK, he did use "kick the bucket" once, but in a thoroughly ironic context.)

Donnelly weaves a narrative around each death, peppered with pun-laden quips and occasionally unbidden, Roger Ebertian critiques of subjects’ acting chops. Only occasionally does he resort to props, such as distressing 911 emergency recordings he cues up on the dashboard CD player. He manages, with impressive hand-eye motor skills, to navigate through gawd-awful L.A. traffic while pointing to the architectural anomalies of a certain apartment house where a B-movie actor expired and engaging his guests in witty chit-chat. His delivery resembled nothing less than the sped-up voice rattling off side effects in TV drug commercials.

As the oversized van — white and black with the company logo emblazoned on the sides, though I really think they should consider switching to a hearse — barreled west down Beverly Boulevard, Donnelly rendered the crowd slack-jawed by his rapid-fire, "Rainman"-like litany of the celebs who were "pronounced dead" (note the subtle distinction) at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center:

"GeorgeBurnsGracieAllenMinnieRippertonFrankSinatraSammyDavisJRHarryCohnSammyKahn (breath) GildaRadnerJohnnyCarsonLucilleBallRiverPhoenixRebeccaSchaeffer (breath) EazyEBiggieSmallsElizabethTaylorSherwoodSchwartzChuckConnorsErnieKovacs (breath) MichaelClarkeDuncanErnestBorgnineGrouchoMarxDonKnotts (breath) ... But not Michael Jackson — that was at UCLA (Medical Center)."

Not everybody in the van — tourgoers ranged from mid-20s to mid-50s; the tour, for obvious reasons, restricts minors — knew all these stars. Little matter. Donnelly considers it his job to immortalize those forgotten of the silver screen.

Take his "tribute" to Prevost, the sultry silent movie star who (for a while) made a successful transition to talkies and made 121 films before, alas, dying alone at her nondescript apartment in the "Aftonian," 6230 Afton Place, Los Angeles. Donnelly pulled the van over, put it in park and turned to face his audience.

"There’s this book called ‘Hollywood Babylon,’ and because of that book, Marie Prevost is known as ‘The Woman Eaten By Her Dog,’ " Donnelly said. "Complete bull----. Repeat: They wrote that her dachshund ate her. (The author) got three parts of the story correct. She was a woman. She owned a dog. She died. Yes, it was a while before they found her body. But a dog wouldn’t do that. The dachshund did bite her, not to consume her but to wake her up — like any dog would do when they see you sleeping. But the story has (persisted) for years. Nick Lowe wrote a great song about it."

Here, Donnelly cued up the CD player and this chorus filled the van: "She was a winner/That became the doggie’s dinner …"

Before veering back into traffic, he made a final comment about the unfortunate pop-culture peccadillo of turning rumor into fact: "For instance, Mama Cass did not choke on a ham sandwich. She died of a heart attack. Now, it is true that she died in the same room Keith Moon died of a drug overdose four years later. Coincidence. That’s all it is."

Like the old chestnut that "comedy is tragedy plus time," details of the long-ago deaths seem easier to absorb than those of stars in our cohort.

When Donnelly rolled by the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where Houston died of a drug overdose in the bathtub of Room 434, he played the 911 tape from February 2012. Most listened staring at the floor. Silence afterward. To his credit, Donnelly played it straight in detailing the events and even made a self-deprecating remark.

"Her family bought every stick of furniture out of the hotel room," he said, "and word is they had it destroyed. I don’t know if they actually did, but I heard they didn’t want the bathtub winding up someplace weird — like in our office. I mean, Scott has Karen Carpenter’s sink, for God’s sake."

Apparently, there is no precise end to a celeb mourning period, no expiration date when it’s OK to have a little respectful fun with a death. Not long after Donnelly’s rather sober telling of the Houston saga, he drove by the Highland Garden Hotel, at 7047 Franklin, in Los Angeles. In Room 105 in 1970, Joplin died of an overdose. A huge Joplin fan, Donnelly wove a story about how he has spent the night in 105 — "a 47th birthday present to myself" — and "laid out masking tape where Janis’ body was." He said the room is a tourist attraction, and the hotel is just fine with that. "People hide notes to Janis in the room," he added.

The stories just kept coming. We passed Bungalow 3 of the Chateau Marmont, where John Belushi died in 1982; saw the front entrance of the Viper Room in West Hollywood, where River Phoenix died in 1993 (and heard another disturbing 911 call, made by little brother, Joaquin); stopped briefly at the Afton Arms apartments on El Centro Avenue in Los Angeles where Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak OD’d; and spent considerable time at apartment No. 4 at 120 Sweetzer Ave. in Hollywood, where young actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by a stalker in 1989, a crime that led to several anti-stalking laws.

So much loss. So much wasted life.

Nobody promised this "tragical mystery tour" was going to be a laugh riot.

To lighten the mood — and I know this sounds odd, but it helped — Donnelly drove us to Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, where many big names are buried. He handed us maps with names and arrows — Burt Lancaster, Natalie Wood, Brian Keith, Jack Lemmon, Rodney Dangerfield (inscribed on headstone: "There goes the neighborhood"), Truman Capote, Don Knotts, Walter Matthau, Merv Griffin ("I will not be right back after this message"), Farrah Fawcett, Roy Orbison, Billy Wilder ("I’m a writer, but then, nobody’s perfect"), Dean Martin and, of course, Marilyn Monroe.

"Have some fun here," Donnelly said, jumping out and running around the side to open the doors.

Nearly all the women on the tour — every single one of the San Clemente contingent — made a beeline to Marilyn’s grave.

There was a crowd, and people waited patiently for their turns. Donnelly warned there might be lipstick smooches on the headstone, and there were. Robb reached in her purse and unsheathed her hot-pink lipstick and added a new coat. Then she bent slightly over — kind of like Marilyn’s iconic pose on the subway grate, actually — and planted a kiss next to her name.

"Eww," she said, daubing her lips, "hope I don’t catch something."

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DEARLY DEPARTED TOURS

6603 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles

Cost: $48

Contact: (855) 600-DEAD (3323); dearlydepartedtours.com

Not recommended for children under 12. Parental discretion is advised.

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